Igniting the American Homesteader Dream
In the United States, Farms Return with Millennials' “Back to the Land” Movement
By Lori Davis, New York
Changes are underway as the country’s demographics shift in significant ways, casting shadows on the traditional American homesteader dream and transforming it into something entirely new. In all, it’s the start of a profound alternative affecting how our nation farms, how the next generation is getting involved, and how it is going to improve food systems.
America’s founding fathers established roots in this country based on the quest for personal liberty and freedom. The American Dream, at our nation’s inception, was something we have always been attempting to live up to, that every man had the opportunity, through his or her own effort, to own land and succeed without barriers. It’s taken a while, and we are still trying to live up to that high bar, but progess, albeit slow, is being made, and now is being led by a new generation—the Millennials—American homesteaders who are more diverse, educated and socially aware than any previous generation to precede them.
Sustainability, and growing your own food, used to be the only choice for many. Soon after America was founded, the federal government concentrated on distributing new frontier land to willing settlers. America’s lands were cleared, farms were built and our great nation rose from dirt, sweat, passion and tears. In 1790, farmers made up 90 percent of the total United States labor force. In roughly 1830, the government began to help American homesteaders grow more crops and the government established new universities (under the Morrill Act of 1862) that were tasked to find better methods of farming. By 1850, farmers made up 64 percent of labor force with 1,449,000 farms in operation. In 1862, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was founded by President Lincoln to help farmers with good seeds and information to grow their crops.
When World War I arrived, it brought a great agricultural boom. Food from United States’ farms accompanied the flood of soldiers having left the farm fields, headed to Europe. Along with our young men, so too our nation’s farm-produce helped feed the allied forces. This was the first globalization of America’s farms. In 1916, the Federal Farm Loan Act created cooperative “land banks” to provide loans to farmers. With the end of World War I, our soldiers came home and many returned to the farm. Farmers experienced a major contraction in commodities exports due to shrinking demand overseas, hurting farms domestically.
America’s farms peaked in 1920 with farmers comprising 27 percent of the total labor force with 6,454,000 farms in operation in America. In 1929, the Great Depression hit, substantially eroding the viability of many American homesteaders’ land and farms.
President Hoover’s administration supported farmers by providing them better credit and bought farm produce to stabilize prices. When President Roosevelt took office in 1933, his advisors felt that the depression was caused by the slowdown in agriculture. The government instituted a series of experimental projects and programs known collectively as the New Deal. Farm support was a major linchpin of these efforts. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps of 1933, the Farm Security Administration of 1935 and 1937, the Soil Conservation Service of 1935 and the Rural Electrification Administration all were established during that period.
Farms stabilized with government assistance and then America went to war once again. World War II moved young men off farms and onto foreign soil in defense of freedom. Along with our soldiers, American homesteaders’ farms once again provided food for our allies abroad. Agriculture experienced another boom during wartime.
What would happen at the end of World War II would change the face of agriculture in America forever and would also re-define the American Dream. With America’s soldiers returning home after attaining victory, President Roosevelt introduced the GI Bill (1944) in gratitude to the returning soldiers. This was likely the biggest single shift in American cultural identity since our nation’s inception due to the cascading events that flowed from that single piece of legislation. The GI Bill enabled returning soldiers to buy homes via loans from the newly formed Fannie Mae. The GI Bill also enabled our fighting men to go to college to further educate themselves for urban white-collar jobs. The American Dream shifted from “freedom to pursue,” to government providing access to low cost home ownership and a college education if an American citizen served. President Roosevelt‘s Economic Bill of Rights advocated, “…the right to decent housing, to a job that was sufficient to support one’s family and oneself, to educational opportunities for all and to universal health care.”
It was at this juncture in American history, where entitlements and assumptions of “affordability via loans/debt” for the American lifestyle also began and consumerism soon took over.
Farms lost young men as many moved to urban settings for greater financial opportunities. Also, vast tracts of American homesteaders’ farmland were acquired and converted into suburbs for new homebuyers. During the war, America had been feeding Europe with our exports. But unlike World War I, America continued this provision post-war under the premise of keeping the world safe, fed and free. Since that time we’ve seen a bifurcation in food, homes and land with agri-business monopolizing the food supply chain and land being moved to either corporatists for big agriculture or sold for suburb sprawl. Many small farms and homesteading communities have died, gone bankrupt, been sold, or are barely holding on.
So, we now arrive at America in 2017. Unfortunately, the unaffordability of the American Dream at personal and national levels is wreaking havoc on the wellbeing and social fabric of our nation. United States’ national debt is $19.4 trillion, and 43.5 million Americans are on food stamps. In a 2015 study by Pew Charitable Trusts, it found that eight in 10 Americans are in debt and are carrying debt into retirement. A New York Times article states household debt has increased by $35 billion, to $12.29 trillion in 2016. A 2014 Urban Institute study found that 35 percent of Americans have debt so far past due that the account has been closed and placed in collections. The statistics tell a story, of debt driven nation living beyond its means in pursuit of the American Dream.
Farms and rural American homesteaders’ demographics have also changed. From USDA’s census data, as of 2012 there are 2.1 million farms in America, a 68 percent decrease from 1920. Farmers and homesteaders now make up two percent of the workforce, compared to 90 percent at our nation’s founding. Eighty-eight percent of all farms today are still small family farms, and farmers on average are approximately 55 years of age. Indeed, a majority of our farms are owned and operated by people nearing retirement age.
We can now begin to see with emerging trends why responsible agriculture (by way of homesteaders and farmers) is beginning to move forward once again. Research is showing that demand is being shaped domestically from our own citizens, coming from outside the mainstream agricultural industry. This movement is being driven substantially by the millennial generation—defined here as people born between 1980 and 2000—and retirees.
The Next Generation of American Homesteader Awakens
Millennials are proving to be the antithesis of boomers in terms of what the American Dream looks like. Millennials prefer simple homesteading and small homes to McMansions, very much due to the recession Millennials witnessed as their parents suffered paying their mortgage. Millennials are cash and debt conscious, opting for an affordable home, or even staying longer living at home with their parents. According to Pew Research Center, 19 percent of U.S. adults live with their parents or grandparents, up seven percent since 1980. In a recent article in the New York Times, “How Millennials Became Spooked By Credit Cards,” it states that data from the Federal Reserve indicates that the percentage of Americans younger than 35 who hold credit card debt has fallen to its lowest level since 1989.
“It’s pretty clear that young people are not interested in becoming indebted in the way that their parents are or were,” said David Robertson, the publisher of The Nielson Report.
Millennials, generally speaking, are cause oriented and are looking for ways to relate to the products and services for which they pay. Millennials care about their food because they want choice, quality, authenticity and stewardship in their foods’ brand values. In fact, The Food Network had it most successful year ever. Last year was Food Network’s most watched year to date, holding its spot in the list of Top 10 cable networks for the fourth year in a row, states Gavriella Keyles in Millennials and Farmers: An Unlikely Alliance?
Millennials are also big organic buyers. They want to know if foods are sustainably grown and where the food was raised. And, they will pay more to have that value-add in their food packaging. They are used to information at their fingertips and expect such information to be available about their food. High-end restaurants around the country are figuring this out and are identifying the local farm the beef, lettuce, honey and jam came from. Such restaurant techniques are infusing a value-added identity to the food and people are paying more.
Millennials are also tech savvy, opting away from big advertising and choosing instead to use digital media to find gourmet high-quality products. Research done by SocialChorus found that only six percent of millennials in the United States consider online advertising to be credible, while 95 percent of millennials believe friends are the most credible source of product information. McDonald’s is suffering from this realization while healthy food chain Chipotle, before its recent food poisoning and labor disputes, was considered the number one best brand to have effectively appealed to millennials.
“Millennial food preferences are already changing the food system as we know it,” says Matthew Davis, Creative Director and Co-Founder of The Savage Bureau, a San Francisco-based design studio that specializes in branding, user experience design and development. “Our firm understands the millennial market and we believe they are transforming just about everything they touch: knowledge, food, healthcare, entertainment, lifestyle, housing, finance, everything. What companies need to understand is that millennials are digital natives. They crowdsource solutions and value sharing. The emergence of a true sharing culture is a profound shift that millennials are spearheading. Opinion matters. In a ‘sharing economy’ a poor food review can close a restaurant. For digital natives, technology self-polices quality and creates true competition. They can be selective with their dollars and buy the best. This is why fresh food, knowing where it’s from and that it’s been sustainably grown all matter to millennials. They trust technology and find new tech platforms such as the near fully automated restaurant Eatsa, exciting. Robots don’t scare them; poor quality and high prices do. In San Francisco, we are seeing breakouts such as Munchery, Sprig, Blue Apron, GrubHub, UberEats and GoodEggs all stepping in to disrupt the traditional food distribution model. We expect radical transformation in the nexus between food, farmers, and consumers over the next 10 years driven by the millennial market demanding change.”
The Scales Are Tipping
I’ve addressed food before farms in terms of emerging trends because these food trends are the forcing function for change on the agricultural industry across all farm segments; big agri-business, emerging small, organic, diversified, rural and urban farms.
Research is beginning to show that there is clearly both “back to the land” and “farm-to-fork’” movements will influence the course of agriculture for the next 50 years. With 1.3 trillion dollars in buying power, millennial shifts in American Dream sentiments regarding farms and food could not have come at a better time with the majority of farmers currently over 55.
I had the opportunity to interview Jill Auburn on this topic. Auburn is the National Program Leader for USDA’s “Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program” operated by USDA’s NIFA (National Institute of Food And Agriculture). I wanted to understand what the USDA is doing to help assimilate new emergent non-traditional farmers and American homesteaders into the agricultural spectrum to harness this growing opportunity of homesteading today.
Auburn shared that the USDA is dedicated to assisting new farmers and American homesteaders that fit a new/non-traditional farming profile with new programs well funded by Congress in recent years. NIFA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program began in 2009, and offers multi-year funding for more than 100 organizations around the country each year. These funding grants are geared to new farmers and ranchers who are in their first ten years of farming or who are interested in beginning farming. The program helps interested farmers collaborate, network and get access to knowledge and hands-on experience.
“NIFA hosts an annual competition that funds projects up to three years. Funding runs the gamut of workshops, incubator farms, hands-on learning, production practices, business planning, marketing, buying or acquiring land, etcetera,” Auburn said.
Additionally, Auburn shares that in the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress required five percent of total grant funding to be allocated to projects serving military veterans entering the farming sector. The increase in demand for these programs demonstrates the growing interest in farming by people of all ages and demographics. Auburn says that while the USDA sees both 65 and older and millennials as key constituencies, they are also seeing many second career professionals entering farming. These are people who are leaving their current careers and are seeking out farming instead. Auburn has been with the USDA since 1998 and has seen a big shift in those who can live off the land, from a strong emphasis on large-scale traditional farming operations to the smaller scale diversified farms and homesteads run by people with non-traditional farming backgrounds. With all the positive initiatives moving forward at the national and state levels, Auburn shares that there are of course still barriers to entry: “The three biggest barriers we see for new farmers are access to land, access to capital and access to knowledge.“
She highlights the USDA’s national clearinghouse for data sharing, video, and knowledge to also assist new farmers.
The Changing Dream
The American Dream truly has changed. Agriculture and food and the opportunities they offer are exciting once again but in fresh new ways. Not so unlike the old ways before America scaled to feed the world. The imagination, individuality, creativity and passion of millennials cannot be overlooked. Their preferences are already redefining markets and shaping a new American Dream. Expect exciting things in the future regarding food and farms.
DEMOGRAPHIC TRENDS & STATISTICS
• Millennials are bigger than the boomer generation and three times the size of Generation X, numbering roughly 77 million — Nielsen Report 2014
• Retiring Baby Boomers, and then millennials, are top two demographics of new farmers — Jill Auburn, USDA
• Millennials in the United States wield about $1.3 trillion in annual buying power — Boston Consulting Group
• One-third of older millennials (ages 26 to 33) have earned at least a four-year college degree, making them the best-educated group of young adults in U.S. history — Pew Research Center
• More than 85 percent of millennials in the U.S. own smartphones—and this is their primary tool to validate their brand loyalty — Nielsen Report 2014
Do you consider yourself an American homesteader living the Dream? How are you working to achieve it?
Lori and her husband operate an organic farm and apiary in New York specializing in value-added products such as honey, salves and organic buttermilk specialty soaps along with raising sheep, goats, alpaca and chickens breeding stock for other homesteaders and new farmers.
Originally published in Countryside January/February 2017 and regularly vetted for accuracy.